By Gray Thomas
Straight, presented by Utah Repertory Theater, written by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornorola, and directed by JC Carter, is a dramedy of sorts that explores popular notions of masculinity and sexuality. Ben, played by John Valdez, is at the center of this play as it opens on his living room. The set (designed by Shawn Henry) that could best be described as a bachelor pad, replete with sport paraphernalia and a somewhat dumpy couch that is indicative of stereotypical single male indifference. Ben is in a long-term relationship with Emily, deftly played by Andrea Peterson. This relationship appears to be fairly solid considering Emily’s journey through graduate school biology and Ben’s seemingly busy work schedule. And then there is Chris, played by Dallon Thorup, Ben’s male love interest who met him, presumably, through a discreet dating app. Emily doesn’t know about Chris. Ben didn’t know he was attracted to men. From this premise the audience views Ben’s humorous though bitter navigation through gender and sexual identity.
Valdez plays the role of Ben well, transitioning between his affections for Emily and Chris, and convincingly occupies in the conflicted space Ben is forced to inhabit. Peterson responds as a cheery, intelligent, though naïve girlfriend unaware of Ben’s true feelings. The audience watches as Emily struggles to understand Ben’s increasing detachment, ultimately blaming herself for what she perceives as a fissure in the relationship. While Valdez and Peterson hit all the notes of their characters, I was thoroughly impressed by Thorup’s portrayal of Chris, upon whom the pain of identity truly plays out. As Ben and Chris’s clandestine relationship progresses, Chris becomes increasingly frustrated with Ben, culminating a heart-wrenching outburst in which Chris proclaims that he wishes he wasn’t gay.
In this scene, the real conversation of the play is dealt. How much of our identity is something that we can determine? Is Chris “gay?” Is Ben “gay?” Is Emily “straight?” How much of an individual is summed up within an arrangement of few letters? How much control do we have on our own identity and how much of our identity is bestowed upon us by the perception of others? Ben comes off as straight. He’s a bro with a fascination in football. He fits what our culture has defined as a straight male. He dresses in business casual during the day, and dons athletic fan gear at night to present himself as straight, an intentional choice by costume designer Michael Nielsen. He further reinforces this definition by denying his own “gayness.” Interestingly, the possibility of bisexuality isn’t even considered by Ben. Thorup’s portrayal of Chris includes a more flamboyant personality that includes a penchant to dance and be a bit more effeminate. Chris fits popular portrayals of “gay,” and the social construct limiting him to that designation. Then again, the play asks, how accurate are those social constructs? How do these socially constructed identities limit who we truly are, and ultimately hurt those we love?
Not to reveal too much, but the play ends with a lot more questions than answers, encouraging the audience to further explore the Ben’s conflicted situation. How is it that we are creating an environment in which our friends are unable to fully express themselves? How do we contribute to assumptions about masculinity and sexuality? This production is effective in challenging our concepts of identity, sexuality, and masculinity. And while there are moments of raw passion and heartache throughout the play, there is also brevity and hilarity, which testify to some of the ridiculous and awkward situations we may find ourselves in when adhering to traditional cultural identity norms. If you seek theatre that truly engages and encourages audience introspection, Utah Repertory Theater’s Straight at the Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake City is your play.
Utah Repertory Theater presents Straight by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola
Sorenson Unity Center Performance Theatre, 1383 S 900 W, Salt Lake City, UT 84104
March 23-25, 7:30 PM
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